What the Rise in Employee Activism Means for Your Business

Ross Brooks
What the Rise in Employee Activism Means for Your Business

Employee activism might sound like a scary term for someone trying to run a company, but it’s actually an opportunity for organisations to bring their values to life in the real world. The alternative is turning a blind eye to the concerns of your employees, which not only threatens engagement, but can lead to serious consequences, like the mass walkout of 20,000 employees at Google over the company’s handling of sexual misconduct.

The internet has given employees a way to uncover information about an organisation that might not otherwise have been known, while social media has provided a platform to discuss issues and mobilise people around the world. Companies can be part of this conversation and work with employees to create positive outcomes for all parties. In doing so, it’s possible to resolve real-world issues, improve retention and create more advocates for your brand.

The rise of employee activism

Global organisations are woven into the fabric of our daily experience, and as their influence grows, more people are asking them to play a bigger role in shaping our world, not just our spending habits. Initially this pressure came from governments and NGOs, but now it’s employees that are taking a stand on societal issues like inequality and the environment.

The employee walkout at Google is the most significant example of employee activism in 2018, but it’s far from the only one. Amazon employees have spoken out against the sale of facial recognition technology to the police, while Salesforce employees marched in front of the company’s HQ to protest their contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

Shifting attitudes to work mean that employees place increasing value on company culture and corporate social responsibility instead of just a paycheck. In order to adapt, companies need to open a line of communication with their employees, and act accordingly.

Why making ethical decisions is good for business

66% of global consumers are already willing to pay more for sustainable brands, which means taking a stand on social and political issues can feed into the bottom-line.

Companies around the world are being asked to play their part, and in the age of social media it’s not enough to sit on the sidelines. The NFL came under fire for its lack of response following reports of domestic abuse, which the brand is still dealing with to this day.

When it comes to attracting talent, brand perception is equally important. 86% of millennials consider it a priority to work for a company that conducts itself ethically. If you don’t have a strong set of values that inform your strategy, employees will quickly take notice.

As the trust in government continues to decline, activism is expected to increase as people around the world voice their opinion on the issues that matter to them. The same is true for employees, who place more importance on shared values and ethical behaviour than ever before. Organisations have an opportunity to align with their employees and customers to help build a better society for everyone. The only thing that’s required is to listen carefully.

How to align your company values with employees

Company values are the foundation of your company culture. They inform the actions that people take within the business, guide overall strategy and send out a message to the world about what you represent. Your culture is a big part of what attracted people to work for you in the first place, so it’s important that it continues to evolve with your employees

1. Listen to employee feedback and identify trends

The initial spark that led to the employee walkouts around the world at Google happened in 2017. In the aftermath, employees were able to discuss what happened on social media and internal messaging platforms, which led to wider concerns about sexual harassment.

Being able to gather employee feedback in real-time gives managers and senior leaders a way to spot areas of concern early. The aim isn’t to monitor employee communications, it’s to give people a chance to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns about the company.

2. Open a dialogue to discuss possible solutions

Once you’ve identified that employees are concerned about a specific issue, it’s important to get involved in the conversation early. Being part of a discussion gives you an opportunity to understand more about the scale of the problem and dig deeper into employee concerns.

Employee activism happens when people have no way to express their feelings about the way a business conducts itself. Make sure that employees understand the different ways they can provide feedback. These conversations will happen either way, which is why it’s important to show a genuine concern for the issues that employees care about.

3. Align company actions with employee values

Listening is only the first step. After that, it’s about showing a genuine commitment to the issues that your employees have identified. That could mean taking a public stand on social media, introducing new policies, or aligning the company’s strategy in a way that’s going to have a much more long-term impact on the issues that matter to your employees.

Companies that have found a way to address employee activism include Uber, who no longer forces customers into private arbitration over sexual harassment claims, and Google, who have cancelled plans to renew a contract with the US military over weaponised tech.

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